If you need a quick reminder of just how much the switch to wildly expensive tentpole franchises has skewed the economics of filmmaking, this weekend’s box office results should do it: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opened to domestic grosses of $176 million, which is simultaneously an incredible amount of money and enough of a disappointment that trades are trying to explain what went wrong. Skywalker’s haul was lower than most projections and significantly less than Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s $220 million or Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ $248 million, and since Star Wars is now a culture war battlefield like everything else in the world, knives are out. The trilogy’s newest installment had several disadvantages at the box office, which Deadline spells out here:
First of all, that number is still the third best opening ever for December, and no other studio but Disney has clocked a 3-day opening weekend in the winter month north of $100M (plus the Burbank, CA studio owns the month’s top four best openings of all-time).
Wait, actually, that seems to be more of a defense of the wisdom of the Walt Disney Company than an explanation of The Rise of Skywalker’s box office results. Deadline does go on to explain some calendarial obstacles Skywalker faced that its predecessors did not—Saturday was a busy shopping day—and provides an insanely detailed walkthrough of the movie’s marketing campaign, from Fortnite promotions to a NASA event called “Train Like a Jedi.” I’d like to think we can stipulate that no one at Disney left any stone unturned in their attempts to move product. But if this paragraph represents conventional wisdom at studios, we’re in for a bleak couple of years at the movies:
It’s an uphill battle to end a 42-year-old franchise, and J.J. Abrams has been tasked with the responsibility of not only ending it, but trying to bring the faithful back after some were put off by Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the creative choices he made with the canon. While Disney has a streak of continually improving upon its sequel openings of Marvel fare, Skywalker may have seen a boost in its opening had there been a huge cliffhanger in the previous installment.
Some people think movies should end with advertisements for other movies, and some do not, but we should all be able to agree that the jerks who harassed actress Kelly Marie Tran until she quit social media should not be considered “the faithful.” The last Star Wars took fan culture seriously, the new one takes fans at their word, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that the resulting film-by-committee has received middling to negative reviews and the lowest CinemaScore of any Star Wars film in history. On the other hand, that record-breaking low CinemaScore was a B+, and the “disappointing” box office was, again, $176 million, so it seems unlikely that The Rise of Skywalker will inspire any changes to the studio formula. Still, it will be disappointing if Disney continues retelling the same old stories to increasingly diminishing returns; fans deserve something new and exciting when they sit down to watch the 12th Star Wars movie.